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10 Questions for Robert Fink: From classical notes to Elvis and Motown – a search for meaning in music

December 19th, 2009 · 24 Comments

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Robert Fink is professor and chair of the Musicology department at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Professor Fink concentrates on music after 1965, with special interest in minimalism, popular music, post-modernism and the canon, and music and urban space. His 2005 book, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (University of California Press), was described by Richard Leppert as “the most important, and clearly the most culturally and theoretically informed, of any of the major studies on minimalism.” Professor Fink, who was a visiting professor of music at Yale in 2006, writes for such journals as American Music, which published his acclaimed 1998 essay, “Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the Twilight of the Canon.” Professor Fink’s UCLA lecture course on “The History and Practice of Electronic Dance Music” was the first of its kind at a major university, and was named “Best College Pop Music Class” of 2002 by Spin magazine. Professor Fink spoke to students who were taking a Fall 2009 music-journalism course (Ethnomusicology 188, Lecture 3) at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. He talked about once wanting to be Leonard Bernstein; Elvis Presley and pop music; the connection between Philip Glass and electronic dance music; Motown and African retentions in music; keeping up with the latest sounds; and his relationship to those he writes about. The interviewers were Joseph Buchanan, Chris Robinson, Ji-Won Kim, Jennifer Li, and Jeehai Song.

Christopher Robinson: How did you get interested in your subject? And how do you see whatever it is you consider to be your subject?

Professor Fink: The question of what is my subject – and what is “our subject,” me and my colleagues – is open at UCLA in a way that maybe it isn’t at other places. It certainly wasn’t necessarily when I started off as a musicologist, which wasn’t what I grew up wanting to be. I think you’ll find very few people who grew up thinking, “Oh, mom – I want to be a musicologist when I grow up.” In my generation, most people who end up as musicologists were attracted to music – and usually classical music because it probably would not have occurred to you in 1979, when I went to college, that if you were interested in popular music, the academic study of it at the university level was something you could do. Because it really wasn’t, especially if you had come up interested in music.

Now, there might have been some other people who were over in the Communications Department or in American Studies or in other places who realized, “Oh, music is a part of American Studies, and it’s a part of Media Studies.” But for those of us who were interested in music – really, the people who thought at a certain point, “Wow, I probably don’t have the temperament to be the concert pianist or conductor that I maybe hoped to be.” For me, it was actually conductor. I wanted to be Leonard Bernstein. I wanted to be the guy with the baton up in front of the orchestra. I was fascinated by classical music – especially orchestra music. I didn’t actually play an orchestral instrument, so it was completely love from afar. I had a stereo. I played it in my bedroom. I was just totally obsessed with big, romantic pieces. So, if that’s where you come from, when it becomes clear to you that, “Actually, I got 800 on my SAT verbal score, so that’s really what I’m good at” – that’s the kind of person who ends up suddenly realizing there’s this thing called “musicology.” I could continue to be associated with the music that I’m fascinated with and have been, and I can write and talk about it and maybe explain it to people, and perform it almost verbally, or perform it in a different way, even though I don’t have the connections or the skill or the athletic ability or the temperament to be a performing musician.

The pop music stuff came much later. And, so, in a way, my subject has changed over the course of my career. And I guess you could argue that my subject for a large part of my academic career has been the change of my subject. I’ve actually tried to theorize and talk about what it means to be somebody who spent most of his adolescence ignoring popular music. What it means then to become interested in it academically and fascinated by it when you’re 30. And what does your musicological training have to do with that. And how do you negotiate that. And then to turn around and go the next step farther and say, “What was it about that music that you used to think was the only music – how do you look at that stuff now that you realize it’s not and it’s no longer the be-all and end-all.”

Joseph Buchanan: Do you remember the light-bulb moment when you said, even though you were so involved with classical music, “Popular music is something I’d like to investigate more of”?

Professor Fink: Yeah. I can give you two stories. I can quite precisely tell you when I got back into popular music. It was about 1986. And it was because I went to two graduate programs – I went to the Eastman School of Music first, got a degree in music theory, kind of flipped out from there and left, and ended up at UC Berkeley, and my first year there, we were just a small entry class of three people. And I was very tight with one of the incoming students, who was obsessed with popular music. We hung out all the time, and if you were going to hang out with this person, you were going to listen to their music. And so I became an expert on basically the kind of stuff that she liked. We were watching MTV and whatever, but it was also British progressive rock, and a certain amount of esoteric stuff. So I began to listen to this stuff as part of a friendship with a fellow graduate student, because when I came in there, that was still not what I thought I’d be doing. So there is basically a gap – there’s 1979 to 1986, where I have to go back and re-excavate what was happening in pop music. I sort of knew it up until I went to college, because you marinade in it; like I know the way anybody would know what’s going on on the radio. Then I just shut off. And I turned back on in 1986.

When I first thought that, “Man, you could study this stuff?” That was a little more subtle. If you’ve read the “Elvis Everywhere” piece, you’ll see that I talk about this a little bit. I was not one of these what I call “amphibious musicologists” – the people who have two interests that have nothing to do with each other. I did sense there were people like this in the earlier part of my career. They were doing a very austere – like “I do Schoenberg atonal music,” and three people in the world care about this (class laughs), “and then I study ABBA” (more laughs). And things are designed to be completely separate and almost opposite. For me, it was a little different, because the classical music I ended up studying – I drifted, so where I ended up at the end of my doctoral dissertation and some of my early work was working on minimalist repetitive music. Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Back when I was doing that, there were still teachers who were pretty convinced that that wasn’t actually classical music at all – that, as one journalist actually said, “pop music for intellectuals.” I didn’t necessarily think of it that way, but it is true that I had already drifted a little bit away from the ideals that underpinned classical music ideology, because I was studying something way at the fringe. And then what happened was, you begin to notice – either because people blend the two styles, or because you get told about it, “hey, that sounds like this” – that certain aspects of electronic dance music, ambient and techno sound a lot like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. So it became clear, almost through chance encounters, that some of these popular musicians – especially in this really anti-canonical music of underground rave music – they knew who Philip Glass and Steve Reich were. They knew the same composers I knew, and they were very influenced by the sound. So I started getting into the music, and getting into ambient music.

I was still playing around the edges. A lot of people doing the ambient scene are kind of arty. But then as you try to follow that up, you begin to say, “Oh OK; there’s other stuff in there – I’m going to trace that stuff down.” And that was sort of the gateway drug if you will. Trying to think about that led me to the kind of thinking you saw in the “Elvis Everywhere” piece, where it’s like, “What am I doing to do with this stuff?” And then thinking that through, at a certain point, I ended up – in that Elvis piece, somebody literally said, “Well, the first version of that article didn’t really say anything really about Elvis, other than to use him as a kind of opening riff.” And someone critiqued that piece when I tried to publish it and said, “Well you talk a lot about what people should do, but you don’t do anything yourself.” So, then I put in the analysis. And that was one of the first times I actually wrote up an analysis of a piece of if you will canonical popular music: “Hound Dog.” I guess you could argue that that’s how it sort of all started. That was the way it slipped out of control.

Joseph Buchanan: When you went to UC Berkeley, were you a music major?

Professor Fink: That was my Ph.D. The degree was technically, “Music, History & Literature.” It was a doctoral degree. I did my undergraduate degree at Yale. And I was basically a music major. Yale doesn’t have performance degrees. So it was basically a bachelor of arts in music/liberal arts kind of degree.

Joseph Buchanan: And what was your instrument?

Professor Fink: They always ask that. (Class laughs.) Fair enough. I didn’t study performance in any organized way. I remember when I was a little kid, there was a record that I used to listen to – my parents must have brought it home – that was one of these kinds of stories for kids that has a moral. And it was about this kid who couldn’t pick what kind of instrument he wanted to play. And he kept getting bored, and changing to the next instrument, and he never got good at anything, and then he was all depressed. I was sort of like that kid. (Class laughs.)

The instrument that I spent the most time with was piano. So I was a keyboard player. I studied piano. I was never going to be a concert player. I got to the level where I could butcher my way through a Chopin piece – a hard one. I could play the easy one, and I could sort of bash my through a couple of impressive pieces. I was a very utility piano player. I was a good sight reader. So I did a lot during my graduate years supporting myself accompanying choruses and ballet classes. I was an accompanist kind of pianist. I did quite a bit of choral singing. That was a way to make money. So I sang tenor or even alto in Anglican church choirs, where it’s just men and boys. I had a pretty good falsetto voice. The Anglicans pay better. (Class laughs.) They do. The Episcopalians pay for their music, and so I had a lot of church gigs like that, like Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, when I was in graduate school. I’m a pretty trained choral singer, but not a soloist.

So I was always playing stuff and doing stuff where I wasn’t really the center of attention. I had these weird orchestral urges – like I played the bassoon for a while, in high school. But there was never an orchestra to be in – that’s a whole different set of issues. But I also played the viola for a while. Really, these instruments that are sort of not that gratifying. But the main instrument, and one that I continue to use throughout my career, is keyboard.

Jennifer Li: When you were growing up, what did you imagine doing for a profession?

Professor Fink: I’d never even heard of musicology. Honestly, I probably never thought of “musicology” as a word until I was well into graduate school. (As a boy), I don’t know that I ever seriously wanted to be an astronaut, though I’m of that generation actually that grew up with the moon landings and everything. I was actually fascinated with science as a kid. I believe it’s in the record that when you take the PSATs – the prepatory SATs – that they ask you what you think your college major will be. I put “chemistry.” I thought that was really cool. I like science and chemistry and stuff. Turns out I had very little aptitude for it. (Class laughs.) So when I went to college I thought that I’d be a history or English major. I was interested in what I now think in retrospect of as basically the Humanities.

I was going to double-major in English and music. Because of the way that Yale is structured, if I wanted to achieve many of my goals, I could really only do the music major because you were getting zero credit for any performance you did. So when I was an undergraduate, I had this idea that I wanted to be a conductor. Well, I needed to find groups to conduct, but there were no curricula outlet for that. There was a lot of musical theater going on. I was conducting the Yale Gilbert and Sullivan Society, and things like that, but there was no credit for that. So I dropped the English major.

It never occurred to me that I would be a businessman, or something like that. Both of my parents were business professionals. My dad’s an engineer. And my mother worked as an executive in a diet company. She was a high-power business executive. There’s not a lot of academics in my family. And at least in the generation growing up, there weren’t a lot of musicians. It turns out there are some if you go farther back. It is a family tradition in at least one side of my family. But I didn’t know about it until later. I knew that I didn’t want to do what my parents did. I wasn’t going to work for a corporation, and I wasn’t going to be an engineer. I liked school. I was really good at it. I was one of those people who were blessed in the modern world to be good at standardized testing. So I had good grades and I really liked school, so at a very early age I thought, “I’m either going to be a conductor or some kind of academic.” But it wasn’t until graduate school that I sort of figured out that one was sort of closer to the other than I thought.

Joseph Buchanan: Did your parents encourage you with your music studies?

Professor Fink: Yeah. Looked at one way, there’s a kind of family narrative that would work very perfectly. My mother was very into music. I think she always said she wished she had majored in music. But she actually majored in history. And I ended up doing music history. So I think my mother was very supportive. She had a moment where I told her I wasn’t going to be a lawyer, and that stressed her out a little bit. (Class laughs.) But on the other hand, she was the one who had the piano in the house. She took lessons. She still does. She’s in her 70s taking lessons trying to get better on the piano. So that was a lifetime love of hers. I can remember, she was cleaning the living room, and pulled something out of the piano bench, and it was a volume of Beethoven piano sonatas, and I guess I was old enough at that point, and she said, “You should get a record from the library and listen to these – they’re really good.” Next thing you know. So, yes, I do feel like I had authorization from my mother.

My dad is an interesting thing – he was more into jazz, in a very kind of ‘50s, post-bop way. There are legends in the family about him and my mother driving down to New York from Boston, which is where I’m from, to go to Birdland to see Charlie Parker. But he didn’t really bring that home. And I have a feeling that when he got married and had kids, it was like, “OK, that part of my life is over.” And so I didn’t get a strong sense from him that music was very important anymore. So my parents had a lot of easy listening music in the house. And we had Chicago. Beatles records. It wasn’t like I had the same kind of influence from both sides. My mother had this very romantic idea of classical music, and my dad – I only realized later – had been into a very different kind of music.

Christopher Robinson: What styles of pop music are you most interested in? And is there a separation from what you’re interested in for personal gratification and for academic purposes? Are they separate spheres, or do they overlap?

Professor Fink: They definitely overlap. Going back to that story I told you, I genuinely liked and was very fascinated by all this electronic dance music. It was a good time, if you look at the almost accidental timing, right around the time I began to realize that minimalism had a lot of links to this dance-music culture, it was the beginning of this big wave that would crest right around the turn of the century of North American interest in rave and techno and things like that. So I got interested in that. I have taught a class here on the history of electronic dance music. And my students all assume – and this is going to blow my cover, but I don’t care; let’s just put it out there – that, “He must totally be a raver. And he must have dropped ecstasy all over the place.” But it’s totally not true. I’ve been to some underground parties, but it’s not part of my lifestyle. I was too old by the time I actually got interested in it to be able to do that. But I really do like that music, and listen to it and collect it. Most of the music that I study is music that I like.

I don’t think there’s a situation where there’s some pop music that I’m studying that I really don’t like. That’s just not my style. Whether there’s some pop music that I really like that I can’t figure out how to study – that’s true of classical music. I think most musicologists have a broader range of music that they are fascinated with than what they study. There are lots of musicologists who study the Renaissance but who also like to sit down and play Brahms on the piano. Or there are people who actually study Brahms but when they go home and want to listen to classical music, they’re going to put on chant. There’s such a broad range. Often the way we get into classical music is through performance, and so there’s stuff that you love because it’s gratifying to perform. For instance, for me, I spent a lot of time as I said singing in Episcopalian church choir, singing old, English counterpoint music or 18th and 19th-century church music. I get a lot of pleasure from that. I actually sang in a lot of choirs at a pretty high level, and I love the sound of people like William Byrd and Josquin – it’s just sensuous and beautiful to sing. But I don’t have any desire to become a musicological expert on that music. And the questions that it throws up are not ones I want to deal with. And pop music – I’m always trying to see if I can find something to say.

There are repertoires that I really like – like country acoustic blues, like Delta Blues, things like that, that I can imagine teaching about and I really like. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be an expert on them and write on them. But a lot of the music I study is stuff that I really like. For instance, one of the places I ended up was the prequel to that dance-music class. I kept having to move backwards in time to explain what was going on. Well, you can’t understand House music unless you have some sense of Disco. Well, you can’t really understand Disco unless you understand Funk and probably Soul music. OK, what the heck is Funk and Soul? Well, you need to understand Boogie-Woogie. You end up: “Well, let’s begin in 1937 here.” (Class laughs.) So you end up at least having to go back to the Rhythm & Blues world and maybe even before. In a sense, you have to go back to African retentions in popular music. What I found is when I started to do that work I ran back into music that I really, really just love to death, which was Sixties soul and Motown. So, I actually spun out a whole class on that.

I guess it’s fair to say that if I find something that really fascinates me in pop music, I will probably try to find a way to deal with it – unless you get a little intimidated. Like I said, with the music I sang in those church choirs, the musical apparatus around, say, Josquin des Prez is humungous. You can’t just step in there as a dilettante and say, “Well, that’s a pretty piece. That note goes there.” And there are some parts of the popular music world where you really have to worry about being a poseur. One of the nice things about popular music from the perspective of musicology is that so much of it is so little studied. You can actually still find pieces of music that are as comfortably powerful to people as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – a piece about which I have written. But when you write about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you basically step into something that is like – this is a Jewish thing – the Talmud. You have huge commentaries on commentaries on commentaries on Beethoven. There’s the piece, and then there’s the reception to the piece, then there’s people talking about it in the 19th century, and people talking about it in the late 19th century, the early 20th century, the middle 20th century, the ‘70s, the ‘90s, and then here comes Bob. Sometimes, you want to do that. But there are also pieces of music like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album, which in some ways are as important, and there may be one or two layers, but it’s not as intense. You feel like you could get in there and really say something. Maybe I do feel that I’m more likely in the pop music world – if something really turns me on, to try to go for it. Whereas in classical music, I don’t know if I want to be in that conversation – it’s so long and it’s complicated. Many of the people are difficult people.

Ji-Won Kim: How do you update yourself with today’s music – do you use the Internet, the radio?

Professor Fink: That’s a good question. Not so much the radio. For a while, satellite radio was working really well for me. There were a couple of genres. Satellite radio is nice because you get quite tight and narrow channels, so you say, “What is alt-country?” Well, there’s a channel for that. One of the joys of being an academic and in a university setting is that you get clued into things by students. So, I find out about stuff because people bring it into me, and they’re like, “Wow, check this out. What can I say about this? Can I write my paper on that?” And I say, “No, but I can.” (Class laughs.) No, I would never do that. So, I learn things from students. But, yes, the Internet – I troll the web a lot, and social media does help. I’m on Facebook and the like. And my Facebook set of friends is a nerdy set. But there are people who are students who I’ve had contact with, who post, “Hey check this out – it’s a Lady Gaga video.” Or, “These guys are playing a club in New York – here’s some video that I shot.” So, in a way, that’s a very powerful benefit of being an academic.

I’ve (also) developed some techniques that work across the board, because a lot of what I’m interested in – discussion of so-called classical music – is the very contemporary fate of it. So I actually have a routine of going out and surfing a whole bunch of aggregator web sites, and I do a lot of general trying to keep tabs on stories about the arts and classical music and culture. Things like artsjournal.com, which is a web site that aggregates a lot of stories from all over the world, English-speaking stories – certainly from England, Europe, North America, about the arts. Not just music. There are a lot of stories on the web site like, “Honolulu symphony is running a deficit.” You get the news stories about the health or sickness of various classical music institutions, which I’m interested in. But you also get stories about the latest trends in various types of pop music or art music. So I spend time and energy trying to keep up with the world.

I don’t know that every musicologist does. There’s definitely a kind of gratification in being a musicologist – the hermit version – in saying, “The world is too much with us. I’m going back into a world when things were better.” Or, “I’m just not going to pay attention to all that.” And there have been moments when that’s very attractive. But one of my commitments as a scholar is to try to pay attention to what’s going on. Right now, what I’ve been working on over the last couple of months is actually about classical music. But it’s really about episodes in the contemporary world. It’s not about the history of classical music – it’s about saying, “What does Disney Hall mean in downtown L.A.? How did it get built? What does the structure say about how people think about classical music?” So, there is an aspect of sort of cultural journalism, though I’m not a journalist. And that was always a bad word when I was being trained as a musicologist. Especially with pop music journalists – the worst adjective you can use about any writing is “academic.” That’s the ultimate slap. And, of course, one of the big slurs in the academic world is to say, “that’s journalistic.” In a sense, we’re natural enemies.

One of my favorite pop-music conferences to go to is up in Seattle, at the Experience Music Project. And that’s a conference where you actually get people like myself, and Robert Christgau or Greil Marcus – the guys writing for the Stone, and what used to be the Village Voice. The big New York rock critics will come, and we’ll all sit in the same sessions. It’s fascinating to observe the other tribe. (Class laughs.) And see if you can be accepted to some extent. This question of what’s academic and what’s journalistic is a very interesting one. But I do think that some aspects of what I do have to do with the same nose for news about classical music or pop music that a journalist might have.

Jeehai Song: Do you have contact with the people you write about, and do they pay great attention to what you write?

Professor Fink: That’s a really good question, and the answer is: No, I don’t (have contact with them); that’s not my style of working. Probably you’d find of more of that kind of work with people who identify themselves as ethnomusicologists. Part of their scholar apparatus is to go do ethnographies – to investigate a scene or place and all the people in it. They actually have a certain amount of trouble, because it’s one thing if you go to a foreign culture where the United States is a hegemonic power – let’s be open about it – and you have money and they don’t. Ethnomusicologists are very conscious about this, and they’ve really thought it through very deeply, but they’re aware of the power differentials that underlie what they do.

If your subject is, say, Aretha Franklin, the power differential suddenly reverses. It’s quite unlikely that you’re going to get access to a lot of the famous popular musicians. So the kind of work where people do that is usually work on local scenes; work on underground, less famous people. But if you want to work musicologically, in the broader sense, like (with) Lady Gaga, it’s not very likely if I were to call up – whoever I have to call up – and say, “Hi, I’m a professor of musicology at the University of California.” I don’t think that I’d have any special access to her.

Then you have the other problem of what would see say, and would it actually be useful to the kind of arguments you want to make. So actually I don’t personally spend a lot of time worrying about contacting actual musicians. Memoirs are interesting. What people write is data. At least up until very recently, within musicology, all the composers were very conveniently dead. (Class laughs.) It was a fundamental reality that you’re doing history, so all you have is documents. Some of those documents are musical texts, like symphonies, but it’s documents, treatises, court records, books, memoirs. So you work with the documents. You figure out how to establish whether documents are, in a sense, lying or telling the truth. Musicologists have not tended to be the kind of people who go out and interview people. And even as we all move into the pop music world, and we deal with more and more contemporary stuff, I think that methodological distinction still exists. I think it’s a temperamental one. I would say I’m a relatively introverted person actually. You guys make me feel more at home. So the idea of going out and (doing what your instructor does) – traveling and taking trips and meeting new people and asking them questions and trying to get them to talk – I’d find that to be quite a difficult job. It’s not the way temperament has led me. It’s also why I probably wouldn’t be a good conductor, either. You’d have to be pretty extroverted to do that job. You’d have to be able to pull people into your vision. “Let’s start an orchestra. I can’t pay you but, hey, come do it!” (Class laughs.) That was always very hard for me.

Regarding whether the people care what musicologists write about them: They don’t, as far as I know. There are a few exceptions, but it’s usually on the fringes of the pop music world. I’ll lay that one out for you. Every once in a while, you’ll get someone who is reflexively amazed that anyone, say, at the University of California at Los Angeles is interested in what they do. They’re kind of like, “Well . . . ” Some pop musicians – and you can’t predict who, because sometimes it’s people who are very non-academic in their life – are validated in some way, or they find it bemusing. And they’re like, “Wow, that’s kind of cool.” Sometimes with dance musicians, when I did the dance-music class, I’d try to invite DJs in for the class. Not that I was going to interview them for my publication, but they’d come in and talk. Sometimes they were local people. Once or twice, it was actually someone who had gone to a UC. And they’re like, “The idea that I would be in front of a class at the University of California blows my mind.” So there was that sense of, “Wow, I thought by doing what I did, I was breaking irrevocably with my school.” Yes, that does happen. But I don’t think in general that hip-hop musicians are particularly worried about their place in history or what colleges think of them. They’re probably more worried about pop critics – people who might help them sell records. And many of them profess not to care about that.

And there’s a complicated relationship – if you work into the older stuff, like ‘60s music or even older than that, what you’re often times getting is survivors or friends of famous people who often times are interested in talking to reporters or journalists or writers – often times because they want to settle scores, or they’re interested in getting their idea out. Sometimes, the power differential pops up again – that they’re somebody who is a relative of a sideman who played with musician X who would really like it if someone would write a story about the sideman because the person they’re related to would become more famous. Not just that they want more money but that they’d be able to advocate for their family tradition – like, “I’d love you to write a story about Jimmy, because he was great, and he wrote all the horn charts for that guy, and nobody ever gave him the credit.” And that kind of stuff does happen. If it’s a biographical project, or a historical project, people do begin to realize that there are people who control the historical record and it might be interesting to give them data, to see if you can get it out there.

But the kind of critical stuff that I do – like the “Elvis Everywhere” piece – nobody wants to hear that. That’s me basically saying that the world is a post-modern kind of confusing place where you can’t really tell what’s important and everybody is sort of faking it one way or the other. So I’m hardly going to burnish anyone’s image with that work. And I’m pretty comfortable with that. I like a little critical detachment. What is that musicologists are doing? Are we doing music appreciation? That’s the implication – that my job as a musicologist is to sort of sell you music. “Music is good, good for you. Mozart makes you smarter and all that.” That’s a complicated question. And I guess that’s particularly complicated with pop music. Because probably most musicologists you’d meet today have gotten over the idea that – especially in my generation – their job is somehow to get everybody excited about the classical music they study. Maybe when you’re teaching in the classroom you want to show enthusiasm, but the idea is that we’re not necessarily just advocates for classical music, because “it’s better than other music and not enough people listen to it. And we need to educate the world.” That seems like kind of a culturally imperialistic thing now.

On the other hand, I think it’s still quite possible for people to have that advocacy idea towards some types of popular music that they like. Not everyone needs to listen to X. Or, the African diasporic tradition of popular music is so incredible – about historical oppression and struggle. You can get into an advocacy-like argument. I still think that that’s sort of an issue. It’s pretty easy to realize that it’s not that useful to show for, like, Wagner, since Hitler liked Wagner. Or Beethoven even. This suff is German music from a long time ago, and it’s not obvious that it’s necessarily important culturally just to say it’s great. Maybe you need to explain some sort of complicated historical thesis or make people think. On the other hand, if you’re talking about James Brown or Aretha Franklin, say, there is a kind of moment where people say – and I’ve read this kind of work – “you just need to listen to this stuff. It will transform your life.” It’s an unqualified positive advocacy. I feel that pull myself. There are moments when I want to say, “Check this out.” And that does drive your work, which is a good thing.

But why pop musicians shouldn’t necessarily care about what I write is that I can’t always guarantee that I’m going to say things that make them happy and that make more people want to listen to their music. I’m pretty comfortable being ignored by popular musicians. If I go to the concert, yeah I’ll put the lighter up and go back stage if I want to get a CD autograph, but that’s different. That’s personal. But as a writer and thinker, I want to be able to draw my own conclusion.

Joseph Buchanan: Have you done any writing on the African retention in popular music?

Professor Fink: Yes, I have. I’ve done a pretty extended piece that I’m trying to finish up. It’s more a music theory thing, which is one of the degrees that I had and moved on from. It’s dealing with the question of, “How do you talk about rhythm in popular music.” That is one of the really powerful places where people make complex arguments about African retention – the question of polyrhythm and how what you can call “the groove” works in Afro-diasporic music. In a way, this is an extension of that “Elvis Everywhere” piece where the question becomes, “Well, how, musicologically can you talk about this.” How have musicologists talked about this phenomenon in popular music? Is it possible to use some technical, analytical way to get at this, or can musicology do anything useful here?

One of the places where this comes down most intensively is rhythm. In the article, I spend time taking about a song by The Temptations, “Runaway Child, Running Wild.” I end up doing a historical reading of the song in terms of what it’s trying to say. It becomes a cultural reading of the song in its original context in 1968/1969. That involved me looking at actual statistics on runaways. I tried to figure out, “Was this an actual issue in the black community.” And, “Why was there suddenly a song about kids running away?” In the same way that James Brown did a song, “Don’t be a drop-out.”

The way I wanted to tell the story of the song was through its rhythm. There is a way of thinking about rhythm, where you radically separate European music – Euro-American music; white music, if you allow me – and popular music, Afro-diasporic music. And then you argue that they work in radically different ways. And in fact the first shot in the battle was fired by a white person in an offensive, problematic way. A scholar who I really respect, Leonard Meyer, who was a fundamentally import music theorist, very early in his career tried to ask, “Could you establish the value of various types of music analytically?” Could you talk about the structure of a piece and how it works, and then decide that some music is more valuable then others? His argument, which was quite provocative to a bunch of musicologists and people who study popular music, was that the best music is the music that acts out the most extreme delay of gratification. Music that makes you to wait longer. So Leonard Meyer allowed himself to say “what’s primitive about primitive music.” He didn’t say, “I mean the music of people in other parts of the world necessarily.” He’s talking primitive as an abstract category – that it gives what you want right away. Or even gives you what you want all the time. As opposed to a kind of music that sets up expectations and then makes you wait a long time. So the two extreme versions might be a Beethoven symphony, where – at least if you’re a musicologist – you can construct a reading of the symphony where the meaning of the first chord doesn’t fully become realized until the last chord. So that it’s like a story or a novel that you have to follow all the way through. And at any moment, you’re feeling a strong tension of expectations, which are then frustrated and frustrated and frustrated.

A classic Beethoven symphony, in the first movement, is tense and dark and in a minor key. And then towards the end of the first movement, it turns to the major, and you think, “that’s great.” But then it’s taken away, and the movement comes down to the minor. Then it’s 15 minutes later and you get to the same chord and it’s suddenly transformed into the minor and stays this time. You have something like a film.

Contrast that with, say, electronic dance music or funk, where it’s cyclical and the feelings you have are ebbing and flowing at the level of the individual bar or cycle. Leonard Meyer’s attitude is that, “OK. That music is kind of immature,” because it doesn’t act out the delayed gratification that you need to become an adult. So he’s linking music to these various mid-century Freudian ideas of how we mature. That we mature by repressing our id. And accepting the reality principle: You can’t have what you want when you want it. And you become a kind of grown-up. Meyer argues that this kind of music (that delays gratification) actually has value in society because it acts out that kind of way of being and thus helps us be more mature and adult. This just pissed the hell out of a lot of people who really liked jazz and also Afro-diasporic music and African music. They basically thought – I think not incorrectly – that it was denigrating all groove-based music as fundamentally regressive and immature. What it did, it spurred a bunch of people to just flip the punch card over, and the next generation of ethnomusicologists said, “No. Delayed gratification – that’s what the man wants you to do. That’s why our society is so uptight.” It became part of the critique of bourgeois society. There’s an attempt to develop ways of understanding how African diasporic music – the complex rhythmic practices that come out of Africa and the Caribbean and then get into popular music – how they can be better than Beethoven. “Beethoven is oppressive – it locks you into the job and the kids and all that stuff. Whereas this music is all about job and liberation and corrective energy and it frees you.”

What is maintained in that gesture is the radical separation of the two kinds of music. If you go back to where I started, I’m a guy who slipped over that boundary without even noticing it. Beethoven. Stravinsky. Minimalism. Ambient music. Rave. Techno. Disco. Funk. James Brown. So I got there without actually realizing that at a certain point, I had become a different person. The point of this piece I’m working on is to say, “This is not division to make.” It’s no more useful than the division I tried to chew through in that Elvis piece, between classical music and popular music as two completely different kinds of music, where you should do two completely different kinds of analytical tricks. What I end up doing with this long Temptations song – it’s nine minutes long – is attempting to analyze it and show that it actually does work with goal direction, expectation. So there are experiments at a place like Motown in working kind of like Beethoven. I’m not saying it’s as good as Beethoven. I’m not trying to play that game. But if you assume, “OK. Motown has African retention.” The drumming in, say, the Funk Brothers – those guys are playing stuff that you can go back and trace the rhythmic patterns back to Africa if you want. And at that moment, in 1968/1969, they’re actually amping up the African-ness of it. The conga drums are coming in. The style of Motown is actually getting more Afro-centric. Right at that moment. But the methods of the song, “Runaway Child,” is actually classic middle-class morality. That’s what struck me. “Runaway Child” is a song about a little kid who runs away from home, because his mom grounds him. Doing research, I found a few places in Jet magazine where this song is actually mentioned in terms of the turmoil of that period. And the sociological argument around that song is that there’s a huge wave of anxiety in the country at large, and in the black community too, around the Summer of Love. And the whole idea of the runaway changes right at that moment. So the whole narrative around running away – which had been in the black community, it seems, a goal-directed act.

A lot of stories about successful black men, especially, in places like Ebony – well, he grew up in a one-room shack in a place like Mississippi, with 14 children, and he ran away when he was 12. The moral of that story was that he ran away to better himself. That story starts collapsing after the Hippies show up. So now there’s this huge fear of kids running away to drop out. This song does have a real historical, culture component. But I wanted to show that you could analyze the rhythm the way people in classical music analyze pitches. You could show that it sets up expectations, and then it frustrates them. It actually plays around with the idea of primitive rhythm – just straight pounding rhythm – and tells a story, not so much with the lyrics, although they are there, but the way the rhythm works. What I was getting at is: Yes, there are African retentions clearly in popular music, but I was trying to destabilize the idea that, thus, that music comes from a completely different world view and works by a completely different set of principles where goal-directedness and narrative structure are just not part of it. That’s an argument that gets made – that African retentions in American popular music are pure blackness, which is imagined as having nothing to do with Euro-American art forms, and working on a completely different principle. And I don’t know that that’s actually relevant to something like Motown, which is clearly a fusion of different kinds of streams of American culture.

I point out that Berry Gordy, who ran Motown, was a highly goal-directed individual. And everything about Motown was about delayed gratification – the Gordy family was about hard work, and about absolute delay of gratification, and all the people in that company were straight as arrows and really working hard. So the idea that Motown would put out his music that was just about (instant gratification) – that’s inconceivable to me.

Tags: Faculty

24 responses so far ↓

  • shaydrums // Apr 28, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Mr. Fink, you mentioned “cultural imperialism”. There is plenty of that in music academia. The tendency of academia to discount popular forms of music is apparently not present with you, and that is good. Even jazz faculty and students tend to discount popular music. Ask a electric bass student about Jaco, he will rightfully sing his praises. Ask the same student about James Jamerson and you may get a blank stare. You should encourage freedom of thought amongst your students. As a percussion student, I played Bach’s first violin sonata on marimba. It shocked me how personally offended other students got when I took liberties with timing and phrasing. They were used to hearing it “straight” and they couldn’t stand a different interpretation. Cultural imperialism indeed.

  • Cuisinart SS -700 // May 31, 2011 at 10:15 am

    There certainly is plenty of “cultural imperialism” within the music academia, I could not agree more, they have a tendency to snub popular forms of music. I am glad to see that is not the case with you Mr. Fink. I find this site very informative and I will certainly be bookmarking it to return again and see all the interesting comments and topics.

  • son iş ilanları // Jun 13, 2011 at 6:50 am

    Ask a electric bass student about Jaco, he will rightfully sing his praises. Ask the same student about James Jamerson and you may get a blank stare. You should encourage freedom of thought amongst your students. As a percussion student, I played Bach’s first violin sonata on marimba. It shocked me how personally offended other students got when I took liberties with timing and phrasing. They were used to hearing it “straight” and they couldn’t stand a different interpretation. Cultural imperialism indeed.

  • billdream123 // Jul 26, 2011 at 5:20 am

    Very well said post. This is very informative and educational. Thank you for sharing this to all of us.

  • james4u // Jul 31, 2011 at 1:36 am

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  • Grant // Aug 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Good to see that the attitude is more open today than when I attended music school in the early 70′s. good to hear your appreciation of Delta/R&B/Motown. I still enjoy Jazz and it’s cerebral tangents, however, Blues is felt in the gut and feeds the soul. What I found after all these years is that if the music somehow moves you, creates a positive reaction of any kind, it is most likely “good music” and most legitimate.

  • professionalmail471 // Sep 8, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Music as a major is very interesting. I believe as of today, only little numbers of youth follow music as their majors in college. But, I honestly appreciate these people because they believe that their passion can be their career as well. Learning piano for instance, students can be very interested but the learning process is never easy. I see students can not even play a single note, sitting for a while in their piano bench. Treating this as an example, music does not only require talent but dedication and courage to pursue and show it in public through professional or personal obligations.

  • Musica // Oct 15, 2011 at 4:43 am

    The tendency of academia to discount popular forms of music is apparently not present with you, and that is good. Even jazz faculty and students tend to discount popular music. You should encourage freedom of thought amongst your students

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  • daveross // Mar 26, 2012 at 8:20 am

    There are a lot of controversy about afro-american music. They really make new style in music industries, especially in 70′s.

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  • jimmie // Oct 5, 2013 at 12:04 am

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  • Jimi // Jun 9, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Professor Fink’s understanding of music theory puts me to shame. His connection to and study of electronic dance music is greater than most ‘professional’ EDM DJ/Producers. I hope to incorporate many of his points of views into

  • Deep House // Jul 18, 2014 at 3:14 am

    There certainly is plenty of “cultural imperialism” within the music academia, I could not agree more, they have a tendency to snub popular forms of music. I am glad to see that is not the case with you Mr. Fink.

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